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'It's an absolute disgrace that nine pupils in every classroom are officially poor'

If the government was serious about improving children's life chances, it would invest in early years education and support services, writes Kevin Courtney

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If the government was serious about improving children's life chances, it would invest in early years education and support services, writes Kevin Courtney

The latest Social Mobility Commission report, State of the Nation, exposes the government’s abject failure in tackling the root causes of poverty and inequality and in offering hope to communities across the country.

The gap between the better-off and the least well-off is growing – Britain is becoming a more unequal society.

This widening gap is the product of a failed approach to economic development and the incredibly damaging programme of austerity, which has cut vital public services, including education budgets across the country.

There are 4 million children living in poverty. This means nine pupils in every classroom of 30 are officially poor. The rise in child poverty in the UK has continued for the third year running, with the proportion of poor children at its highest level since the start of the decade. Work does not provide a guaranteed route out of poverty: according to the Children’s Society, 67 per cent of children in poverty have at least one parent in work.

In the world’s fourth-richest economy, this is an absolute disgrace.

Teachers do everything they can to enable children to reach their full potential and to acquire the skills and knowledge that will help them to thrive and flourish as adults and as active and engaged citizens. But schools alone cannot compensate for the impact of poverty on children’s educational outcomes and life chances. Children are being badly let down by a government that is exacerbating inequality and driving up poverty.

Cuts to early years funding

Any government serious about improving children’s life chances would invest in early years education. Instead, the Conservatives have cut Sure Start and funding for nursery education and childcare. This has put at risk high-quality provision linked to low staff-to-child ratios and highly qualified early years teachers.  

School funding and local authority budgets for school support services have been slashed. This is having a devastating impact on the education of children and young people. Thousands of headteachers have written to the prime minister and the education secretary, Justine Greening, exposing the inadequacy of school funding. These cuts are undermining schools’ ability to provide a well-rounded education with a broad and balanced curriculum and sufficient support for all pupils.

The harsh reality of cuts means that schools are being forced to increase class sizes, reduce subject choices, remove some subjects from the curriculum, cut back on extracurricular activities and reduce the numbers of qualified teachers and support staff. This impacts on all pupils, but particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.

On top of the funding crisis, we are experiencing the worst teacher recruitment and retention problem in decades. The root causes of this crisis are clear: uncompetitive pay, unsustainable workload and intolerable accountability pressures.

Children have only one chance at education. The government has a responsibility to ensure that every child, regardless of their background, receives a high-quality education.   

The school funding shortfall and the teacher shortage are problems of the government’s own making, and it has a responsibility to put them right. Tackling child poverty is a moral imperative and not one that Theresa May can shirk for any longer.

Kevin Courtney is the joint general secretary of the National Education Union

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